The Show Did Go On: Re-inventing Live Performance during COVID-19

Cast of "Fefu and Her Friends" shortly before the virtual curtain rises.

The Department of Theater Studies was a mere 23 days from opening night of its Spring Mainstage Production “Fefu and Her Friends” by Cuban playwright María Irene Fornés–when President Price announced that Duke would transition to remote classes and cancel events drawing 50 or more people.

At that point, the cast and crew had devoted six solid months to the production: costume, sound, stage, and lighting designs were nearing completion; tickets went on sale and posters were scheduled for distribution; and the all-female cast had spent 18-20 hours a week in rehearsals, and were enjoying Spring Break after a successful off book run-through where they rehearsed the entire play without the use of the script. 

After reading President Price’s email on March 10, Samantha Steger (Linguistics ‘21), cast in the role of Paula, thought the production was done. “I was devastated. The cast and crew were the best group I’d ever worked with on a play, and it seemed so unfair that the work everyone had put into it would be for nothing.” At that point, few on Team Fefu had high hopes of the production coming to fruition.  

Where Do We Go from Here? 

Students returned home to make the transition to remote learning, and the mainstage production class (TS 350) met via Zoom to discuss the play’s fate. For student and assistant director Maria Zurita Ontiveros (Theater Studies and History ‘21), it was, at times, overwhelming. “When we met for the first Zoom class and realized we wouldn’t be able to perform it as originally planned, I had to periodically turn off my video to cry because that was the moment it became real.” 

If Jeff Storer, director and Theater Studies faculty, was fazed by this major setback, he didn’t let it show. He knew there had to be a final product, but what that looked like and whether or not an audience would see it, was still uncertain. “Everyone was so invested in this production and process that would, and should, have culminated with a public performance—it was essential to give these students some sort of final experience to bring the work together in front of an audience, and create an archive.” 

“As we met online for the first time as a group to discuss the possibilities, it was clear the students wanted, and needed, to see this through. I asked the actresses to jump in, and they courageously did.”  

Backdrop for Fefu
Sonya Drum's detailed rendering of the living room.

The class went to work taking an inventory of what was completed and what wasn’t, focusing on how they could use what they had to present, at the very least, a reading. They quickly realized what they had was substantial. The entire sound design and score from composer Sarah Roberts was in the can, and there were detailed renderings of each room on set from the scenic designer Sonya Drum. Erin West, manager of the Costume Shop, had created color sketches of costumes prior to construction—and the actresses knew their lines. 

Re-Inventing Live Performance

As Jules Odendahl-James, the production’s dramaturg, began researching ways theater companies were making the transition from public to remote performances, she continued to come back to successes using Twitch, a live streaming platform for gamers—and that’s when Rashad Miller joined the team. Miller had collaborated with Storer on theater projects in the past and happened to be the owner of GGs Live, a media service that pioneered the streaming of tabletop gaming tournaments. The two started discussing the possibilities of a live reading via Zoom, what that would look like, and if Miller could create a visual record of the performance. “And what we did with all our given circumstances became this theater experiment we presented on April 7,” Storer explains. 

costume Fefu
Costume sketch of Christina, played by Adriana Morales.

Relying on the immense amount of work done prior to Spring Break, the cast and crew focused less on rehearsal and more on clarifying the logistics that came with transitioning from a performance on stage to a reading on Zoom. While working through sound cues, composer Sarah Roberts and Thom Quintas, stage manager and director of Theater, discovered the software they were using distorted sounds when played through Zoom. They scrapped the work and started from scratch creating an iTunes playlist of 40 cues. Zunita Ontiveros combed through the script to mark the necessary stage directions she would deliver, so an audience could understand the play in its new form as a reading. For visual representations, Miller turned to the finished set renderings as indications of spaces the actresses were occupying during the play, and although they lacked finished costumes to wear, there were West’s sketches.

Fefu and Her Friends 2.0 

On April 7, the cast Zoomed in from the United States, Mexico, and Kazakhstan to present the reading to an audience of 50 invited guests. And what would live theater be without a few hiccups? The laptop with the playlist of sound cues took a nosedive 20 minutes from virtual curtain. Roberts and Quintas quickly reconstructed the entire cue list on alternate laptops, with Quintas “calling” the cues over Zoom private chat to Roberts—while the audience enjoyed the show, unaware of any “backstage” glitches. Looking back, Storer feels satisfied with the finished product. “We did achieve the goal—they [the actresses] told the story to an audience.” 

“Fornés would have love it,” adds Odendahl-James. She believes the innovative and experimental playwright would have embraced the idea that theater is much more than just the space. 

The Arts are Essential

Why did cast and crew feel it was imperative to continue with the show, when it would have been understandable to have ended with President Price's announcement in March? At this unprecedented time in our collective history, Storer believes the arts are providing empathy and understanding for us all—but especially for students who are experiencing uncertainty and anxiety as they navigate the realities of college during a pandemic. 

For Zunita Ontiveros, Theater has always been the backbone of her student experiences at Duke, and she’s discovered that directing is the career she wants for the rest of her life. But she’s also found strength and reliance to push through challenges. 

“The arts, especially theater, have been essential during the COVID-19 pandemic because they remind me to be hopeful. Art has and continues to provide me with a way to process and deal with the pain in my life, and with the grief of this situation.”

Cast and Crew

Cast: Joan Ac-Lumor: Guardian; Darya Andreichenko: Cecilia; Darcy Cook: Guardian; Eka Ebong: Guardian; Liddy Grantland: Julia; Anna He: Guardian; Maria Henriquez: Cindy; Tara Maier: Emma; Adriana Morales: Christina; Tess Noonan: Sue; Alex Smith: Fefu; and Samantha Steger: Paula

Design: Chuck Catotti: Light Design; Barbara Dickenson: Movement Consultant; Tim Domack: Prop Master; Sonya Drum: Scenic Design; Jeff A.R. Jones: Fight Choreographer; Intimacy Coach; Jules Odendahl-James: Dramaturg; Rashad Miller: Digital Director; Sarah Roberts: Sound Design/Composer; Jeff Storer: Director; Erin M. West: Costume Design; and Maria Zurita Ontivaros: Assistant Director

Production Staff: David Berberian: Manager, Scene Shop; Marcy Edenfield: Senior Director, Venue and; Production Management; Grace Francese: Production Crew; Richard Kless: Director, Theatre Operations/Production Manager; Margo Lakin: Communications & Marketing; Lauren Mitchell: Production Crew; Thomas Quintas: Director of Theater; Stage Manager; Jessica Reveal: Director, Ticketing and Guest Services; Aanya Sanghavi: Assistant Stage Manager; and Erin M. West: Manager, Costume Shop 

Production Course (TS 350.2): Instructor, Marcy Edenfield and students: Grace Francese; Lauren Mitchell; and Aanya Sanghavi
Scene Shop: Christina Boxberger; Michael Dodd; Grace Francese; Ashley Jeffers; Jessica Marks; Nick Saba; and Dominic Van Cleave Schotland

Costume Shop: Grace Abels; Belle Allmendinger; Suomo Ammah; Nima Babajani-Feremi; Milagros de Souza; Micki Haralson; Jasmine Harris; Ashley Jeffers; and Carly McGregor